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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Disgruntled; or did you hear the one about the lawyer and the screenwriter who were neighbors?

By Frank Gruber

I have been trying to figure out why last week's City Council hearing on a new hedge law left me so disgruntled.

After all, the Council had decent ideas on side and rear hedges and, for the most part, held the line on front yards. ("Council Reshapes Controversial Hedge Law," May 12, 2005)

But disgruntled I was and disgruntled I remain.

Sure, the law needed updating. But I am nagged by the sense that the bad guys won.

As everyone knows by now, the City's enforcement staff blew it when they sent out threatening letters to 100 or so hedge law violators (really blew it when they included future councilmember Bobby Shriver). (For the record, before I enrage the easily enraged, it was I who first reported that the threatened $25,000 fine was ten times what the law provided for. ("What I Say: Where Ordinances Are Ordinary," June 7, 2004)

And yes, it's been sweet to see code enforcement mania blow up in the faces of those politicians who pushed it.

But there is no reason to overdo either sympathy or recriminations: the illegal hedge-growers have worn out the former, and as for the latter, the formerly overeager staff have been humiliated enough.

There is a fiction going around -- it appeared in David Mamet's laughable opinion piece that the L.A. Times and the Daily Press published and it even appeared in the Lookout's article on last week's hearing -- that the 1948 fence and hedge law had not been enforced.

Not true. Yes, the City didn't send around hedge police. But at the planning counter the law was enforced. And on those occasions when private complaints led to enforcement actions, the Planning Department and the Planning Commission enforced the law -- most recently, as readers of this column will remember, in the case of the Barbanell/Bass fence on Seaview Terrace. ("Fence Saga Likely Ends," May 21, 2004)

(Unfortunately, the ugly Barbanell/Bass fence/hedge still stands -- saved by the moratorium on enforcement the council passed in June 2004, and soon, with the new law, unless a next-door neighbor objects and can prove "extreme" hardship, to be made permanent by "grandparenting.")

More important than any coercive enforcement, however, residents have largely accepted the law. If you walk, or bike, or drive around Santa Monica, you will notice that when it comes to front yards, the vast majority of property-owners trim their hedges. As a result, Santa Monica's neighborhoods are beautiful places to walk, bike or even drive.

At the hearing Council member Bobby Shriver once again (yawn) flogged the nasty staff members who sent around their nasty notices, but he neglected to mention that they did so only because one of the anti-hedge homeowners, outraged that someone had ratted on his hedge, ratted on a hundred or so others.

The staff's response was Pavlovian, but let's not forget who rang the bell.

And sure it was hilarious when Council member Shriver pushed his "$29.95" simple public process, but I can't wait for one of his spoiled brat constituents to square off against another of his spoiled brat constituents over the size of a hedge. No doubt, one will be a lawyer and other a screenwriter, and let's see if the Planning Department can keep staff time sorting that one out to $29.95.

Staff didn't just make this due process stuff up.

Richard Bloom was the only council member who got things right Tuesday night. It was poignant. While the other council members were piling on with exhortations to staff to draft the new law to favor residents with existing illegal hedges (i.e., the lawbreakers), and after all the whining and aggressive self-righteousness of the hedge-owners who appeared, Councilmember Bloom -- speaking for the "minority" -- softly reminded the rest of the council that the people who lived on the other side of a hedge were also entitled to some small measure of respect.

* * *

The ironic thing about the hedge controversy is that the people who are pushing their right to hide behind front yard hedges sound to me like the same people who usually push the sanctity of R1 zoning, i.e., the holiness of the single-family home.

This is ironic because historically you can't separate the movement that elevated the single-family home to the apotheosis of American Destiny from the idealization of a landscape of open front lawns.

I recently visited my brother in Syracuse, New York. He lives in a 1920s neighborhood of big 1920s (three story) homes on narrow lots; the neighborhood (see photos) shows the power that open front yards have to create a sense of community in the context of freestanding private houses.

Photos by Frank Gruber

However poorly the suburban model worked on a big scale in the post-War context of urban disinvestment and sprawl, there was, at least, a shared vision that everyone in the neighborhood benefited from the generous public space people contributed to each other and themselves.

* * *

Before I get too crabby about the whining of the public, I want to recommend an article that L.A. urban designer John Kaliski has written for Harvard Design Magazine.

The article is called "Democracy Takes Command," and Mr. Kaliski's general thesis is that the expansion of the public process over the past couple decades in the L.A. area has overall been a good thing, notwithstanding, as he uses Santa Monica's hedge controversy to illustrate, that "even the smallest design details" have become the subject of politics and process.

Mr. Kaliski gives examples, and shows that things are not so bad as people think they are. In fact, important things -- notably air quality and mass transit -- are much better than they were. His explanation is that as people get more involved, they educate themselves better.

So read the article and forget my disgruntlement.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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